Russian Probe Shuts Media Foundation
Friday, June 29, 2007
MOSCOW -- A Russian nonprofit organization funded by the U.S. government to train journalists and improve management at local television stations has been shuttered by a criminal investigation that critics charge is politically motivated.
Authorities targeted the Educated Media Foundation after its head was found with slightly more than $12,500 in undeclared currency at a Moscow airport, an offense that routinely would be settled with a fine, lawyers said.
Instead, Manana Aslamazyan, 55, is facing up to five years in prison on smuggling charges. Her organization, previously called Internews Russia, is accused of money laundering -- an allegation that Russian journalists and civic activists, as well as Western diplomats, dismissed as absurd.
The effective closure of the foundation, whose computers have been seized and bank accounts frozen, is the starkest example yet of the Russian government's hostility to Western-funded nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs. The authorities accuse them of trying to foment the kind of political discontent that brought on street revolutions in neighboring Ukraine and Georgia.
Russia has tightened registration and reporting requirements for the entire nongovernmental sector, with special restrictions on foreign-funded groups. President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly warned that Russia will not tolerate interference in its internal affairs.
"Unfortunately, the situation in Russia for NGOs is not safe, and this case is just an excuse to provide a lesson to the entire community," said Pavel Chikov, head of the human rights group Agora, which provides legal consulting services to NGOs across Russia. "The message is that they can use the slightest mistake."
The mistake in this case occurred on Jan. 21 when Aslamazyan landed at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport. In her purse she had 9,000 euros in an envelope as well as 550 euros and 5,000 rubles in her wallet.
Aslamazyan walked through the exit for arriving travelers who have nothing to declare. She was stopped by a customs officer. She said in an interview this week that she immediately realized she'd made a mistake and volunteered that she had cash that was the equivalent of $2,567 more than the allowed limit of $10,000, meaning that she should have declared all the cash. The 9,000 euros, she said, was a personal loan from a friend in Paris, where she had just visited.
"I was not hiding anything. It was just a mistake," Aslamazyan said in a telephone interview from Paris, where she fled as the criminal investigation here escalated. "I was sure I would be penalized, but I couldn't imagine that my mistake would have such consequences. My foundation was destroyed."
In most cases involving similar amounts of money, people have to appear before a justice of the peace and pay a fine, according to Boris Kuznetsov, Aslamazyan's attorney. "That's it. Case closed," said Kuznetsov, one of Russia's best-known criminal defense lawyers, who is representing Aslamazyan for a nominal fee. "This case was exceptional."
Kuznetsov said investigators ignored a general customs service directive that the severity of any charges for undeclared currency is determined by the amount of money involved over the legal limit. Investigators, he said, counted the $10,000 allowance as well as the $2,567 above the limit to press smuggling charges and elevate the offense above an administrative matter.
Aslamazyan's case, which normally would have been handled by the airport police department, was taken over by an investigative committee at the Interior Ministry.